Taming the Storm with Manly Strength: The Courage of Saint Columbanus
“Their aspect is terrifying. . . They are very tall in stature, with rippling muscles under clear, white skin.” Thus wrote the Greek historian, Diodorus Siculus in the first century B.C., describing the Celtic peoples.
Diodorus continued: “The Celtic way of fighting was alarming. They wore . . . bronze helmets with figures picked out on them, even horns, which make them look even taller than they already are . . . while others cover themselves with breast-armor made of chains. But most content themselves with the weapons nature gave them: they go naked into battle.”
Emerging from central Europe around 1000 B.C., these fierce warlike people were among the most successful conquerors the world had ever seen. Archaeologists have discovered Celtic artifacts as far North as Denmark and as far east as India. By the time of the Roman Empire, however, Celtic dominance had waned, being limited primarily to Gaul (modern France) and the British Isles, where Celtic languages are still spoken today.
The Romans discovered the ferocity of the Celts in 390 B.C. when a Celtic tribe from Gaul sacked Rome. The tables were turned two centuries later when Julius Caesar tried to annex Gaul, and later Britain, for Rome. It would take nearly a hundred years more before Rome finally succeeded in bringing the British Celts into her empire. Even then, Rome had to send about an eighth of her entire fighting force to the island just to keep the Celts from revolting. Moreover, a heavily fortified 76-mile-long barrier, known as Hadrian’s Wall (named after the Emperor who commissioned it), was required in order to keep at bay the wild confederation of Celtic tribes living in the North.
Fierce as they may have been, the Celts were sensitive to poetry, music, and the arts. They were great craftsmen, fine story-tellers, and legendary for their hospitality.
Transformed by the Gospel
No one knows for sure how the Celts living in the British Isles first heard about the gospel. According to one set of legends, Christianity was introduced to Britain shortly after the resurrection by Joseph of Arimathea, a tin merchant who is thought to be Jesus’ great uncle. Whether there is any truth to such stories or not, it is clear from the writings of people like Tertullian (c. 160–c. 220) and Origen of Alexandria (c. 185–c. 254) that Christianity was well established in Britain by the second century, possibly earlier.
When these warrior poets embraced Christianity, they lost none of their fierceness nor their poetry but put these qualities to the service of God’s Kingdom. Like King David, the prayers and hymns of the Celts showed a vision of the Lord that was raw, rugged and untamed. It was a hardy faith that would later give birth to stalwart reformers such as John Knox.
If Christianity helped to mitigate the barbarism of the Celts, it diminished none of their natural temerity. Celtic monks were known to be just as courageous, and sometimes just as foolhardy, as their pagan forefathers.
“A Spirit of Restless Energy”
The Celts had always been keen explorers, eager to seek adventure through travel. After their conversion to Christianity, it is not surprising that this dynamic energy found expression in some incredible missionary voyages. Never half-hearted about anything, Celtic missionaries sailed to wild Nordic lands, or to rural areas in Gaul where the Christianizing influences of the late Roman empire had not yet penetrated. Old Irish writings with Christian symbols have even been found as far afield as West Virginia, presenting a mystery for archaeologists and scholars to the present day.
While we may never know the extent of their missionary labors, it is clear that the Celts were some of the boldest evangelists the world has ever known. “A spirit of restless energy possessed them,” wrote Katharine Scherman in The Flowering of Ireland. “It was given many names, but its cause must surely be sought in the peculiarly Irish development of Christianity in the early centuries: a seeking curiosity, the desire to expand mental boundaries along with physical, to find new ideas in new settings.”
It is one of these Celtic missionaries whose story concerns us now.
The rest of this post has been removed because it appears in my book Saints and Scoundrels.